UK: Children in detention may face Covid-19 restrictions until 2022, ‘It’s just too long’

Rules allowing up to 22 hours of solitary confinement for young offenders could continue, in move lawyers say is ‘very concerning’.

The Ministry of Justice has said that new rules that allow youth detention facilities to hold children in solitary confinement for up to 22 hours a day to prevent the spread of Covid-19 could remain in place for two years despite lockdown measures being relaxed for the rest of the UK.

Lawyers have told the Guardian that time out of cells and access to education are still being severely curtailed in many facilities across the country. *“The recent announcement by the MoJ that these restrictions could go on in some form until next year or even further is very concerning,” *said Jude Lanchin of Bindmans solicitors.

Lanchin told the Guardian that one of her clients, a 16-year-old held in a secure training centre, was being severely affected by having to spend every day alone in his cell. “My client is on remand and has not even been convicted of an offence. It has been extremely difficult to work with him on the case and I was only able to see him recently on video-link for the first time after months of detention,” she said. “He has told me the hours in his cell mean ‘things go round and round in my head’. As a ‘looked-after’ child in care, he already had issues of concern and has now become depressed, anxious and agitated.”

Penal reform and children’s charities say that there is already evidence that the regulations are impacting on the human rights of young people in detention, with many still on very restricted regimes, even as the UK emerges from lockdown.

Laura Janes is the legal director of the Howard League for Penal Reform. She said: “It has been moving to speak to children over the past week who are really excited about face-to-face education starting up again. But my team is aware of a number of children in young offender institutions and secure training centres who last week were still in solitary confinement most days, spending 22 hours a day in their cells.” She said the charity has been receiving reports from young people who say their mental health is suffering as a result, describing their situation as ’’stressful“, “awful” and “depressing”.

In March as the UK went into lockdown, severe restrictions were placed on young people in detention to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Young people aged between 12 and 17 were put into what amounted to full solitary confinement in their cells, alone, for up to 23.5 hours a day. Almost all education and therapeutic services stopped. In secure training centres, children’s right to 14 hours out of their cell was changed to 1.5 hours.

The practice was introduced in March but was translated into official policy over the next few months, most recently for secure training centres in early July, with an end date of March 2022. The MoJ said there had been some easing of restrictions but that the legislation was needed to ensure that any new outbreaks could be swiftly contained. Last week Lucy Frazer, the minister for prisons, addressed the justice committee and defended the ongoing power to restrict time out of cells. She said: “Our aim is to open up as much as possible. We want to ensure that we have the legal framework in case we have regional outbreaks or another national outbreak.”

Sir Bob Neill, chair of the justice committee, pressed Frazer on why the powers are set to last for longer than other Covid-19 regulations across the UK. Speaking to the Guardian after the committee hearing, he said: “It’s just too long. These are exceptional measures for specific circumstances. You don’t want institutional inertia to see the powers used too much and we’ve seen that happen too often in prisons, it’s a very easy thing to happen with the pressures they face.”

Penal reform and children’s charities argue that the new rules in youth detention are part of a wider stripping back of hard-won children’s rights during the Covid-19 pandemic that campaigners have described as “deregulation on steroids”.

In April the Guardian reported that the decision to relax 10 key sets of regulations severely weakened rights for children in care. The changes included the removal of the requirement for a social worker to visit – or even telephone – a child in care every six weeks, reducing it to “as soon as is reasonably practicable”. The requirement for a six-monthly review of a child’s care has been similarly relaxed, and adoption and fostering panels which allow for independent scrutiny have become optional.

These changes are currently being challenged in the high court by Article 39, a charity campaigning for the rights of children in institutional settings, which is asking the court to reinstate legal protections for children in care. The case will be heard on 27 and 28 July.

Carolyne Willow, director of Article 39, said: “The overnight legal changes diluting duties to provide education and activities were clearly made in the interests of the companies rather than children, and there’s no justification at all for an expiry date of March 2022.” Article 39 has joined experts from across the field of youth justice in signing a letter to the Guardian calling for an urgent easing up of the restrictions in youth detention.

Referring to the recent announcement on secure training centres, an MoJ spokesperson said: “This change simply provides the legal basis for the measures we’ve had to put in place to protect children and staff in secure training centres from coronavirus. Most children are currently able to spend around six hours out of their rooms each day.”